The charismatic manager has Liverpool fans showing up en masse and believing again.
BASEL, Switzerland – Belief, once again, is sprouting on Merseyside. The great flood hasn’t yet arrived, but dotted around Basel on Tuesday was a scattering of red shirts, the vanguard of the great mass of Liverpool fans who will arrive for Wednesday’s Europa League final (2:45 p.m., FS1). Of Sevilla fans, there was barely a sign.
Liverpool’s allocation was extended to 10,600 tickets when Sevilla failed to sell out its 9,000 share, but the likelihood is that many thousands more than that will make their way to Basel. Local geography means this will not be an invasion quite like that which descended on Istanbul for the Champions League final in 2005–a shortage of accommodation means many fans will end up staying in Mulhouse, Freiburg and other surrounding towns and villages–but there were nonetheless signs of a city beginning to creak under the strain with long lines at passport control and a dearth of taxis on the French side of an airport that straddles the Switzerland-France border.
The difference in enthusiasm is understandable. Sevilla has won the Europa League in each of the past two seasons and four times in the past nine years. It would be misleading to suggest the club or its support is sated, but the prospect of traveling 1,000 miles across Europe for another final perhaps isn’t quite as enticing as it once was.
Liverpool fans, by contrast, starved of success for a decade–the League Cup aside–are desperate to be there to witness a success that might herald the start of a new era. A new generation yearns for a European pilgrimage to add to the legends of Istanbul, Rome and Madrid.
The mood, though, is a little different to those previous occasions. This isn’t the excited naivete of the finals of the 1970s, nor the confident assertiveness of the 80s.
Neither is it quite like 2005, when Liverpool’s progress to the Champions League final felt like a glorious freak; not undeserved, but something of a one-off.
It was hoped that Rafa Benitez’s ability to out-think opponents in one-off games might lead to great things, but it was obvious that the squad he had needed major surgery, and it was far from obvious that funding would be available for it.
Benitez never had the cultish appeal of Jurgen Klopp; popular as he was, he never had the charisma to be the leader of a popular movement. This squad, like the one of 11 years ago, will need major reconstruction, but there is a sense of this not merely as a final but as potentially the start of an era of success.
Liverpool’s form has been inconsistent since Klopp took over. A record of 48 points from 30 league games is nothing special. But in the Europa League there has been a building sense of momentum.
Beating Manchester United in the round of 16 may have been a matter of largely parochial pride, but it began the process. The comeback against Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinal was one of the great Anfield nights–although how history judges it will in part be determined by what happens in the final. The dismissal of Villarreal in the second leg of the semifinal, a performance of profound self-belief, was hugely impressive and, to an extent, revelatory.
It felt like a throwback to three decades ago, an English side simply being quicker and stronger than continental opposition, an approach rooted partly in attitude but also in organization. The Dortmund game had been a triumph of spirit and will; this was a more replicable football victory and one that suggested the extent to which the Klopp method had been absorbed.
“He’s put a belief in the players and the fans,” Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson said. “We’ve gone up a level.”
The wider context is significant. This season, English football had its fourth different league champion in four years. The last time that happened was 1993, at the beginning if Manchester United’s two decades of dominance. The time before that was 1973, at the beginning of Liverpool’s 17 years at the top of the game. This is a rare period of flux, ready for a great side to seize the opportunity.
Liverpool is one of perhaps half a dozen sides that could become the dominant force over the next decade or so, but, with Manchester City awaiting Pep Guardiola, Chelsea awaiting Antonio Conte, Manchester United’s managerial situation unclear, Arsenal still Arsenal and Tottenham, for all it has done right this season, perhaps suffering a few doubts after its collapse in form in May, it is better placed than an eight-place finish in the league might suggest.
The final “is a very important step,” Klopp said. “I was really convinced about the quality of these players. Maybe I was the only person, but now I see these players deserve to be in this final.”
A win in the Europa League would not just be an achievement in its own right but would help confirm that sense of progress. It wouldn’t be a guarantee, of course: the side with which Gerard Houllier won the UEFA Cup in 2001 was undermined by poor signings and soon disintegrated; Benitez’s team got closer to the title, but it, too, was undone by a lack of investment. The new television deal, by ensuring every club will take at least £100 million next season, reduces to an extent the importance of resources and puts the emphasis back on coaching.
Klopp has been in four finals in the last four years and lost them all.
“At home I have a little too many silver medals, that's true, but it's better than no medals,” he said. “For me, when you try hard, and keep trying, then you get there eventually.”
Liverpool fans fervently hope he is right. And hope, too, that this final is just the beginning.